Well, I think it’s time to address a debate that has been raging within the Italian magical community, that is: What term best describes the Authentic Magical Tradition of Southern Italy and Sicily?
Now you may have heard the terms Stregheria, Stregoneria, and Benedicaria used before and each given their respective definitions, such as:
Benedicaria- The Folk Catholicism practiced throughout Southern Italy and Sicily. In it’s purest of forms it is in perfect accordance with Catholic Doctrine as it’s adherents are devout Catholics.
Stregoneria- A collective term to describe all the Folk Magic practices of Italy, devoid of a particular religious creed.
Stregheria- A religious practice of witchcraft with roots in Italy. Its practices are void of Catholic influence and claims to have survived the Christianization of Italy by going underground.
I am to tell you that these definitions are historically inaccurate and have only gained truth in the last decade through various authors and their followers.
I’ll start with Stregheria. This is an archaic term meaning “witchcraft” that was revived by the Italian-American author Raven Grimassi to describe a neo-pagan religion that he had written about in his book Ways of the Strega. Grimassi has made himself clear many times that the practices he describes in the aforementioned book and in his more recent tome Italian Witchcraft are of his own creation and not an authentic reproduction of what he claims to have been taught through “family tradition”, because of this disclaimer I won’t spend too much time on him. However before I leave Grimassi completely I will note my personal opinion on his work (afterall this is my blog). Although Grimassi saved himself from further critique in the inaccurate use of the term Stregheria, his frequent attacks on practitioners of authentic Italian magic may prompt one to question the authenticity of what it is that he practices “behind-closed-doors”, that is: if what you have written about lacks any tradition to it, then what is it that you practice in private, because you seem unfamiliar with any authentic form of Italian magic?
Anyway back to Stregheria, other famous practitioners include the late Italian-American author and pagan activist, Dr. Leo Louis Martello and Italian-American shop owner and Salem resident, Lori Bruno. While I am familiar with the works of both, and in all truthfulness I have no ill feelings toward either, I cannot support their claims, you see the problem is this: They claim to be descended from an unbroken line of Sicilian witches that have been completely and unwaveringly devoted to a pre-Christian goddess and god from the times before Christianity and up to the modern era. While I have no problem with the claim that our practices have pagan origins to them, there is no historical truth to the idea of a secret pagan cult surviving in Sicily or mainland Italy up until the modern day, and a number of anthropologists have verified this fact (search the works of Sabina Magliocco for more reading on the subject). Like it or not Italy, and by extension Sicily, is an Catholic country and has housed the Roman Pontiff for the full 2,000 year history of the Roman Catholic Church, to divorce Catholicism from Italian tradition and culture is to essentially loose the culture all together. So while I have no doubts that the Italian-American practitioners of Stregheria, that I have mentioned above have grown up around the folk magic traditions of Italy, they themselves have rejected the Catholic element in their spirituality and replaced it with elements of the modern Wiccan religion and this can be clearly seen in the workings that they do and thus rendering their traditions inauthentic.
On to stregoneria, a term popularized within the English speaking world by the, now defunct, website Stregoneria Italiana, to describe the collective folk magic practices of the Italian people. In the modern Italian tongue the word stregoneria means simply witchcraft with no specifically “Italian” insinuation. The problem with utilizing this terminology to describe the “low magic” practices of the Italian countryside is that no authentic practitioner of these arts would claim that what they were doing was witchcraft, nor would they identify as a witch, or strega. So how can we popularize a term for something that the practitioners themselves would be insulted by? The answer is: we don’t. The struggle comes with the diaspora of the Italian people from our homeland into the lands of other immigrants. Back in the proper context our medicinal and magical knowledge was praised by the community and we, as healers, were needed (for further information read my post on the role of a Sicilian cunning person) however in these new lands, namely America and Canada, our traditions were shunned by the Irish Catholic values that began to creep their way into our communities and families. Italians have a saying that in Italy even the sacred and the profane are seamlessly blended, meaning Catholic faith and our pagan practices, however not in America, where the predominant ethnicity of the Catholic Church was the Irish Americans who often regarded us as heathens and idolaters and barred us from their churches. Shunned from practicing our faith our spirituality began to suffer and thus led to the slow decay of our folk traditions in the New World. However this modern generation has experienced an increased interest in the ways of their ancestors and the 3rd and 4th generation Italian-American community is looking more and more into learning the “superstitions” and folk magic practices of their forebears, mostly as a way to try and recapture not only their heritage but also an alternative spirituality when so many feel ostracized by the Catholic Church. Now, when looking for fraternity, we turn to the neopagan community, fearing the same judgmental response that our ancestors faced should we try and assimilate our renewed knowledge of folk magic with the Christian faith- this is the birth of the neo-pagan Stregheria movement as well as a the foundation of the new, “capitalized” term, Stregoneria, a desperate attempt to fit in with a magical community that is often hostile to Christian beliefs, while at the same time attempting to give us credibility as a Traditional system of magic while maintaining Catholic beliefs. Unfortunately, being a traditionalist myself, the historical inaccuracy of using this term keeps me from utilizing it any further and so the search continues for an authentic term for a tradition that historically lacks one, which leads me to our last term Benedicaria.
This final term is quite possibly the most accurate term when describing the magical traditions of Italy, as well as the most misunderstood. Benedicaria, a term which owes its presence in the mainstream English-speaking world to the independent author, Vito Quattrocchi, has quite possibly suffered mostly from him. Now make no mistake for I have the utmost respect for Mr. Quattrocchi and his work to immortalize the customs and traditions of his family with his writings and I have no doubt that, although some improvisations and modern additions can be seen throughout his work, his tome Sicilian Benedicaria: Magical Catholicism seems to have an authentic basis. However, with Quattrocchi’s book being the only English text on the subject to use the term Benedicaria, nee the short lived printing of a book written by Fr. Agostino Taumaturgo, the term suffers from the one sided and “overly Catholic” practice that Quatrrocchi has described in his 183 page text. The practices recorded by Quattrocchi lack any metaphysical explanation while disregarding the spirituality and beliefs of the practitioners behind them, his work is seemingly inhabiting a sort of Limbo between devout Catholic prayers and true folk religion. So although Quarttocchi did not create the term Benedicaria, his influence has done much to diminish its full potential, Benedicaria is not “magical Catholicism”, it is the magical traditions and practices of the Mezzogiorno that happen to work within a Catholic worldview. Benedicaria is a term developed in the Sicilian countryside and by its practitioners, and with its meaning “the way of blessing” it remains open-ended to the diverse individual practices of families while remaining true to the purpose of our arts. So while poorly represented within the context of the English speaking world, the term Benedicaria is the best term in which to describe the Authentic Magical Practices of Southern Italy and Sicily.